Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kanji 漢字

     I have been studying Japanese with a bit more gusto than I did when I lived in Kanazawa. Working at an English conversation school is rather like living in a bubble of English. You use it in ever class, you use it with your boss, your coworkers and students. Unless you feel really dedicated, you don’t really need more than a rudimentary level of Japanese. This is of course why and how I lived in this country for two years with only a rudimentary level of Japanese. I could ask for directions, find a bathroom, order a steak or a beer, ask what time it was and introduce myself. However, anything more complicated than that was going to be a stretch. Reading wise I learned the two Japanese kana alphabets, hiragana (ひらがな) for Japanese words, and katakana (カタカナ) for transliterated foreign loan words. I also studied a bit of Kanji, the imported Chinese characters. With all that, I could navigate a train station, or piece together a menu to know what I wanted, or even more importantly what I didn’t want.     Living in the rural suburbs of Maebashi and working at a 'real' school is a very different experience. My
students are of course much younger and much lower level than the businessmen and housewives I taught at GEOS. Though to be honest, some of  the English teachers I work with can hardly string a sentence together either (though some are quite fluent). Naturally, Japanese is everywhere, the school schedules and handouts are, understandably, entirely in Japanese. If you want to have even just an inkling of what is going on around you, you had better start studying.
     And study I have. I have a kanji book that will teach you how to read and write the 323 most common characters. I’m up character number 195, though I can’t say I have mastered writing all of them, I can usually read them. 195 characters seems like a lot, until you look at the list of over 2,000 daily use kanji that you need to read a newspaper and function in day to day living. Though a lot of name and place kanji aren’t on that list, so really the number of kanji your average Japanese person can read is quite a bit higher than 2,000.
     Unlike many students of Japanese, and I assume Chinese as well, I actually enjoy studying the characters. It is fun to see how the concepts fit together, and how words are related. For example, the word for fireworks, 花火 is a combination of the word hana, flower, and bi, fire. That’s a pretty good conceptual representation of fireworks! Every character either contains or is a radical, a basic element that repeats and provides some idea to the theme of a word. For example, 言 is the character for talking, or saying something. It is also the base radical in any number of other communication related words like 話, to converse, 読 to read, 語, language, 試, test, and I’m sure dozens of words that I haven’t learned yet. The problem with studying kanji though is they are a very efficient way of conveying meaning, but they give no hint on how to pronounce the word. Each character has at minimum two readings, one evolved from the original Chinese pronunciation, and one from the original Japanese word that was attached to that concept before the written language arrived. Different compounds and situations call for a different pronunciation, and while some of it can be deduced, most of it must simply be memorized, at least as far as I can tell. For example, I know the characters 来, come 場, place, and 者, person. I also know the compound word 場所, basho, which means place as well. 場 here is pronounced ba. But in the new word I learned, 来場者, raijousha, which means, attendees or visitors, 場 is pronounced jou. So simply by looking at the word, I could take a stab at meaning, come place people, but I had to look it up in a dictionary to check my pronunciation. Its good I did too, because my first guess was way off! Luckily for my studies, I see this more as an intellectual challenge than a massive pain in the rear, so it has actually been motivating me to study lots of kanji, and all that work is paying off. I still can’t read everything in the school handouts, but bit by bit I can read more. My spoken language skills and listening skills are improving as well, but at a slower speed. I’ve always known I was a visually oriented person, but now I can really see how that affects my language studies. If I see something enough times, I'll remember it, but if I hear something it’s gone. I’m sure my mother could tell a few stories about me forgetting vital spoken information...

Monday, June 28, 2010

View from the Mori Tower

While I went to the Mori Tower to see the art exhibit, the fact that a combo ticket to the observation area was available meant I had to take yet another opportunity to view the urban landscape of Tokyo from above.  I've taken some cool pictures of the Mori Tower from Tokyo Tower, so it was fun to get a chance to look back the other way.

Roppongi lies to the south of the center of Tokyo, and offers a slightly different view of the city. I say slightly, because its still a view of endless, wall to wall buildings! Though, if you get a really clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji to the west, poking above the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. Sadly, this day was clear, but not that clear.

We got some pretty cool views, but nothing truely spectacular. Though I'd love to head back up on a super clear day, or for sunset. Out front of the tower is this nightmare inducing metal spider. It's a cast of Maman, by Louise Bourgeois. The original is outside the Tate in London.  Bourgeois died on May 31st this year, which was less than a week before I took the photo.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tokyo Station 東京駅

I still remember arriving in Tokyo station on my first visit to Japan. I took the Narita Express in from the airport, fought my way through the commuter crowds and hunted out a hotel. I knew next to nothing about Japan, and nothing about the layout of Tokyo. These days, I usually head straight to the west side of the city, and the urban centers of Shibuya and Shinjuku, which are just more fun than the office buildings and ultra expensive boutiques that surround Tokyo Station.

I actually still visit Tokyo Station fairly often, I just never leave the station! You ride the bullet train, get off at Tokyo, and get right back on a local train bound for your true destination.  Though that doesn't mean anybody should dismiss the area right off the bat. After all, the Imperial Palace is just a few short blocks away, as is the museum that hosted the Manet exhibit I saw recently.

Real estate in Japan is expensive. Real estate in Tokyo is even more expensive. Real estate in central Tokyo is astronomical. So, if you want to build an area of shops and restaurants, but don't want to build a new building, why not go underground?

I walked through this arcade for well over two blocks without ever going above the surface, and there were plenty of intersections and offshoots. I explored merely a small portion of a veritable underground labyrinth! Tokyo Station is hardly unique in having a huge subterranean support network, but that doesn't detract from the experience. Ironically, one might imagine a cluster of fast food and other assorted sub par eateries, but I must say that lunch was cheap AND delicious, and there were plenty of restaurants and even a few bars that looked just as good as any surface side counterpart. 

Once you've shopped and eaten though, it's time to jump on a Yamanote line train and head to the next stop on the line....

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Domo-Kun is Dead, a few tales from class

We do a listening test at the start of every third grade junior high school class (9th grade by American counting). I read out a series of sentences that they have studied, and they write them down. However, the other day I accidentally read the wrong sentence and I saw 30 Japanese students looking up at me with their best `huh?` faces. I felt bad, but I couldn’t help laughing a bit inside, they just all looked so adorable in their puzzlement. 

I did an activity in class where the students broke up into groups and created a news interview based on a few options I gave them. Among the possible interview subjects I came up with were Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a rock star, and Domo-kun, the cute fuzzy mascot of NHK, a Japanese TV broadcaster.
Most groups basically followed the example pattern I had laid out, but one group took the basics and ran for, and past, the goal line. While their reporter was interviewing Domo-kun in Tokyo Dome, a rock star came up from behind and shot him in the head! The nonplussed reporter then continued the interview with the assassin. I was absolutely flabbergasted at this unexpected turn of events.

Later in that same class, we were reviewing the sentence structure "Have you ever…"  and I asked "Have you ever seen Godzilla?" I pronounced it the American way, rather than the Japanese Gojira, and they didn’t really get what I was asking at first, so I did my best T-Rex/ Godzilla impersonation complete with sound effects, and the whole class just lost it laughing. There were quick calls for, "one more!" so I took an informal poll, and over half the class wanted more Godzilla, so I tucked away my pride and did it again. Ill be keeping the king of the kaiju tucked away, ready to dust him off if I need to.

Monday, June 21, 2010

European Masterpieces

The 54 story Mori Tower hosts a cinema, an office building, shops, an observation lounge and an art museum. On my last trip to Tokyo the important part of that equation was the art museum, which was hosting the show European Masterpiece from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which is rather a mouthful.

80 paintings were shipped to Japan from Boston for display, two months in Tokyo, and two months in Kyoto. The works were arranged both chronologically and by theme, starting with portraits. Probably the most striking image in that room was Pablo Picasso's Portrait of a Woman. I'll admit I've never really been a big fan of Picasso, his painting simply aren't beautiful to me. However, I can't deny his deft skill, this work may looks strange and unusual, but upon seeing it you know that it looks exactly how he wanted it to, there is no gap between skill and vision here.

The next room was devoted to religious subjects, and while there were interesting works, nothing really jumped out at me. However, following the religious were four dutch paintings from the late 1600s, including this one, Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, by Emanuel de Witte really caught my eye. The painting is quite large, and the interplay between light and shadow in the fore, middle and back ground is amazing. By placing them after the older, religious paintings, Dutch works really stood out. You could see just how revolutionary they were at the time, breaking free from established artistic dogma and painting simple, normal, every day life.

 Given that I had just come from a show devoted to Eduard Manet, I was pleased to see a few more of his paintings on display, including this one entitled Music Lesson. The show had a very large selection from the other famous French artist whose name starts with M and ends with net. There was an entire room dedicated to Claude Monet, and I have heard that the Boston Museum of Fine arts has the largest collection of Monet outside of Paris.

If I had to pick my favorite of the Monet works in the landscape room it would be this, Morning on the Seine, near Giverny. At this resolution and size it is hard to see, but the way he captured the early, misty morning light was amazing. Monet was always exploring the different effects of time of day and weather on light, and I love the way he could put that on a canvas.

There was an entire room dedicated to Impressionism and landscapes, and the lone Van Gogh piece dominated it. Something about his brilliant colors and shapes just makes his works stand out. It also makes his them less effective in reproduction. In my mind, there is little substitute to seeing a Van Gogh painting in the flesh.

Another of the Impressionist landscapes that I took a fancy to was Overcast Day at Saint-Mammes by Alfred Sisley. Looking at his paintings, I found that to me his works sort of stretched a bridge between Impressionism and Realism, with the the emphasis on both light and feel as well as the details of the objects in the painting.

I could keep going, there were so many fantastic pieces, and amazing artists represented, but I'll stop here before this post becomes a book in itself. One last blog related note however, this post is number 500 on my blog. 500 posts, four names, and five years. Reading back, it has been an eventful time! I like to think I've become a better writer, photographer and blogger over the past five years. Here's to the next 500 posts!

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Yamanote Line Project 山手線 プロジェクト

The lifeblood of Tokyo is carried through the Yamanote Line. Traveling a 34.5 kilometer loop around the center of the city, the Yamanote Line is the single most useful Japan Rail Line in the greater Kanto region. Just about every major tourist destination in Tokyo is accessible from one of the 29 stations. Indeed, the two busiest train stations in the world, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro, are both served by the Yamanote Line. The line itself carries an estimated 3.5 million people a day.

I can't even remember the first time I traveled on the Yamanote Line, though I could guess that it was when I visited Tokyo for the second time with my friends Matt and Zach, back in early 2006. The first time I visited Tokyo, I was so terrified of the mess of multicolored spaghetti that makes up the two separate subway networks and the multitude of above ground commuter rail lines that I refused to use them at all!

Since then I've become an old pro at navigating the around the city. However, as I traveled around the loop, curiosity started to get the better of me. What was at each of these stations that I was passing by? In order to find out, I've decided to visit each Yamanote Line stop in turn to see just what I can uncover. I'll use a mixture of photographs from my previous years in Japan along with plenty of new ones, and document the whole Line, starting at Tokyo Station, and moving counter-clockwise from there.The Yamanote Project will be the Friday update, so no matter where I go, and what I post about the rest of the week, hopefully each of the next 29 Fridays will be a look at the Yamanote Line. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Saville Report

This post represents somewhat of a departure from my usual travel and Asia themed musings, but I have had a deep interest in Irish history for the better part of a decade. The recent release of the Saville report, which was commissioned by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, has brought Bloody Sunday back into the news.
First, a little background.
By the early 1960s events in the North of Ireland had largely settled down. The Catholic minority still faced day to day discrimination in schools, housing and jobs, but for the most part armed conflict had become a thing of the past. The Irish Republican Army still existed and their rhetoric talked of a break from the United Kingdom and a united Republic of Ireland, but the organization lacked vitality, and was leaning ever more to the Marxist left. The bloodshed that would mark Ulster throughout the 70s and 80s was nowhere to be found.
Then the Ulster Volunteer Force came into being. A Protestant, Unionist militia, the UVF was formed in 1966 expressly to counter a perceived threat from the IRA and from the Nationalist community. One of their first acts was the firebombing of a Catholic owned liquor store in Belfast that killed a 77 year old Protestant woman.
Into that charged atmosphere stepped the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King. The American Civil Rights movement sparked a similar effort in Northern Ireland. Rather than the tired, violent republican rhetoric that had been a part of Irish Politics for centuries, new leaders would use non-violent efforts to obtain basic equality for the Catholic minority. Equal opportunities, electoral reform and freedom from police oppression didn’t seem like too much to ask. Sadly, it was. Unionist forces attacked many marches, and they often descended into violence and rioting. The local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was overwhelmingly Protestant in its make up, and was seen as a force for Unionist oppression. This is why the arrival of army units from England were initially seen in Nationalist circles as a good thing. They would be a disinterested third party that would protect their communities from the UVF and the police.
What would become Bloody Sunday started as a non-violent protest march on Sunday January 30th 1972. The marchers were protesting internment, the government practice of interning paramilitary suspects without trial or charge. The vast majority of those interned were Catholics who may or may not have had actual paramilitary ties, while Unionists were rarely interned. The Nationalist communities wanted the process stopped. The march was banned, but went ahead anyways, and at the end 26 people had been shot by English Paratroopers, and 13 of those lay dead in the Derry streets. Already on its last legs in the face of renewed bombing and intimidation campaigns on both sides, non-violence as a viable political strategy lay with them. Young men from nationalist neighborhoods saw clearly that their views and desires meant less than nothing to the government, either in Belfast or in London.
A commission on the events of Bloody Sunday was instituted at the time, but many felt it to be a whitewash. The protest marchers and some of the dead were cast as IRA gunmen and bombers, and it was maintained that the soldiers who had opened fire had done so in self defense. People who were there and relatives of the deceased have maintained to this day that the march was peaceful, and that nobody who was shot had a weapon or bomb on them, that there was no threat to the paratroopers who had fired into the crowd.
That is why the recently released Saville Report is so important. In going back and processing an immense amount of information, the hope is to finally lay to rest the controversy and to settle on the truth of what happened that day in Derry.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Édouard Manet and Modern Paris

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in central Tokyo is currently hosting an exhibit centered on French Painter Édouard Manet and the Paris of the late 19th Century. Being a fan of that era in French Art, I knew I had to make it to Tokyo before the exhibit ended.

The show was put on with the assistance of the Musée d'Orsay, so the gallary was packed with excellent works. Though two of his most famous efforts, Olympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère were absent, there was still plenty to look at. One I particularly enjoyed was the above portrait of Emile Zola. 

I think my favorite painting was this one, Sur la Plage. A simple look at everyday life in the mid to late 1800s, centered on people. I think it perfectly captures the time and place. Indeed, time and place were a central theme to the exhibit at large. Using contemporary photographs, architectural plans, posters and more, the museum sought to give a wider context to Manet and his times for an audience that is probably less familiar with European history. All of the supplementary material was printed in both French and Japanese, so between the two languages I could usually get a hint of what it was all about.

One aspect of Manet's paintings that I noticed was his occasional tendency towards the more macabre aspects of daily life. The Dead Matador is a rather disturbing piece really, stark and to me much less outwardly appealing than much of his other work, or the work of his contemporaries, though still a stunning piece. 

I was overjoyed with the opportunity to see an exhibit like this so close to my city, though there were drawbacks as well. I've found that any sort of cultural exhibit or event in Tokyo tends to draw a large crowd. (Possibly because of the 35 million people living in the greater metropolitan area?) The exhibit wasn't as busy as it could have been, but there were plenty of people hovering around the paintings, and the Japanese tendency to queue up through an exhibition was in full effect. 

Despite all that I must say I had a great time, and learned a bit more about art, Manet, and the birth of Modern Paris, which is a pretty good mornings work if you ask me. If you happen to be in Tokyo before July 25th, I highly recommend a trip to the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


The next day I had the chance to see the small town of Shibata. Shibata is a castle town, much like a smaller version of Kanazawa. It comes complete with its own garden, Shimizuen, which was built by the samurai overlord of the district.

It reminded me of Kenrokuen, though much smaller in size, importance, and crowds. In fact, my little group pretty much had the whole place to ourselves!

Niigata is famous for sake, and between the garden and the main shrine was a sake brewery. They plied us with free samples... lots of free samples. I think I must have tried at least 5 or 6 different styles of nihonshu, and by the end I was the proud owner of a new bottle of sake and a pretty good buzz!

The other major tourist attraction in Shibata is the castle, the towers of which are partly a reconstruction and partly new. I actually walked into the courtyard and said, "This is it?!" because the area looks a lot larger on the outside than it is on the inside. The largest and most interesting looking tower is off limits, settled on the neighboring military base.

The base itself was having an open house day, so we got to tromp around looking at all the high tech weaponry used by the Japan Self Defense Force. I was actually kind of surprised that a foreigner with a big camera was allowed on the base without so much as an ID check.

Then it was time to head back through the mountains to Gunma, though this time I opted for speed and convenience over cost and beauty.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Tengu Comes

The Festival was in Sanjo City, right in the center of Niigata Prefecture. It started with a parade of local children carrying floats and playing music. Their performance really impressed me, it takes a lot of stamina to march in a parade, and they all took to their tasks with an abundance of sincerity.


 One of the centerpieces of the parade was the Tengu, a demon who can be both a protector and an antagonist. The festival ends with the Tengu walking around the local shrine three times, while young children are held up by their parents for good luck, though we missed that part.

The local adult population also had a chance to show off their parading skills.

Once the parade had passed it was time for the true heart of every festival, festival food!

Though a significant percentage of Sanjo's population had that thought at the same time we did! The food stall alley was jammed with humanity, you would have thought we were in the heart of Tokyo rather than rural Niigata.

The shrine was surrounded by games, food, toy tents and more. Everybody was having a wonderful time, though the crowds could be a bit too much at times. Of course saying that Japan is crowded is like saying that the sun is bright, it's just a fact of life!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Over instead of Under

A few weeks ago a friend invited me up to Niigata Prefecture for a local festival. I was interested in the trip, but a little worried due to the expense of taking the Shinkansen there. I have always been a 'faster' instead of 'cheaper' person, but this time I opted to take the much slower local trains instead of the shiny new bullet train.

While this required me to change trains a whopping 7! times, it saved me a lot of money and let me see the high mountain scenery that lies across the spine of Japan. Gunma lies right at the edge of the vast Kanto plain, where the Japan Alps thrust up from the flatland. Niigata lies to the west of Gunma, on the other side of the massive Echigo Range. Trains, as a rule, dislike steep grades, and the high speeds of the Shinkansen require a very flat operating surface with wide, sweeping curves.

This makes it very hard to climb mountains, so the engineers did one better, and dug right under them! The Shinkansen enters a tunnel a little way outside of Maebashi, and rarely comes out until it reaches the next stop, at the ski town of Echigo-Yuzawa. It goes underground again there almost all the way to the coast of the Japan Sea!  While this makes for a speedy trip, tunnels don't really offer much to look at.

I picked a great day for such a leisurely train journey, the weather was perfect. Clear blue skies and warm winds made for a remarkable contrast to the chill rain that has characterized much of this Spring. Many of the farmers along the route were using the nice weather to plant their summers crop of rice. The whole trip just put me in a great frame of mind, which is something I hadn't expected when I was looking at the rather epic amount of time it was going to take.